Updated: October 19, 2011
Mandriva is a distribution awash in politics. Not for the first time, the team and the operating system is undergoing turbulent changes, resulting in many a fork and spoon being created. But that's the not the reason why we're here. We're here to test the latest release of Mandriva, per Greg's request.
I am going to torture Mandriva 2011.0 for a while and give you my two cents on how it works, how it looks, how it behaves. We will do all the usual, including peripherals, 3D effects, multimedia support, installation in a dual-boot configuration with Windows 8 no less, we will discuss the look and feel a lot, address problems and issues, and even religion believe it or not, all in the purely technical context. So do read on.
Live session, a feast for the eyes
The boot is a classic Mandriva; a lot of questions are asked before you are presented with the desktop. You must answer questions on your timezone, date, time, keyboard, language, your sister's hair color, and what the average speed of an African swallow is, laden. Then, you hit a desktop. But the wait is definitely worth it.
Look & feel
I must admit I am truly impressed by the look and feel of this release. While it's KDE4.6, it's like no other I have ever seen. The crisp combination of colors, the fat yet extremely functional bottom panel and the modern, slick menu is virtually unmatched. Now, each of these elements separately would not draw the eye too much, but together, they make for a splendid first impression.
The menu is probably the most interesting thing. It opens fully screen and has three tabs, Welcome, Applications and TimeFrame. The last one requires that you turn on the Nepomuk indexing service, which is disabled by default and will display changes to your data using a time-ribbon interface. The second tab is self-evident. The first one offers quick access to your recent documents, applications and places, plus it comes with inline search and awesome icons. Really lovely. Somewhat reminds me of Jolicloud slash Ubuntu Netbook Remix, with a bit on Unity and Gnome 3 spiced in for the good measure. But then you recall you're working in a KDE session.
You also get a stylish user icon in the top left corner, while screen lock and shutdown buttons are located in the right one. This departs from the classic desktop scheme, and you might be a little annoyed, but the initial feeling is rather good.
The bottom panel is also designed with style. Big, lovely icon, clarity, good ergonomics. The system area packs a bunch of icons, including your standard Wireless, Bluetooth, removable devices, clipboard, sound, and battery meter, but you also get MandrivaSync, and Kwallet, if you happen to store your credentials there.
Even the Dolphin theme and windows borders are extraordinary. The fonts are razor sharp. I swear, you might never believe you're working in KDE, and yet you are. Possibly the most radical and effective cosmetic change I have yet encountered. A truly aesthetic work.
And still more look and feel
There's more. Open any of the system menus and you get a clever, if somewhat Windows like looks. The expected inline search is in the right corner. The usual opulence of choices and options is well hidden beneath a few stylish buttons. You can control every aspect of your system using a single unified menu, which also turns on the desktop effects, but more about those later. And then, the old, trusted Control Center is also available, should you need it.
Speaking of syncing your files, This is Mandriva's equivalent to Ubuntu One. You get a free 2GB online storage, where you can keep your files. It's a no-brainer, except that you have to create an account in your browser and setup the schedule routine. Worked fine in my testing.
When the sync is active, the red cloud icon will turn blue. The similarity to Jolicloud is never so obvious like here, luckily it is one small icon.
Usually, Mandriva was spotless when it came to playing music, watching Flash clips and such. However, this time, Flash is nil, while you still get your MP3 songs all right. The media player of choice is Clementine, and it's looking better than ever before, although I'm missing the lyrics plugin. Even so, the player is turning more and more professional, highly polished and useful at the same time.
We will try to resolve the multimedia issues later on, after we install the system. Firefox does pop its expected message about missing plugins, but it doesn't really do anything.
Looking at the overall live experience, the visual element is just wow, but the functionality can be improved, including a better multimedia support and 3D experience. By default, on my test box, the 3D card was not in use in the live session, which made the Clementine visualization act all slow and jerky. But like I said earlier, more about this later. Now, let us install Mandriva 2011.0 on our machine.
Like Mageia, which is based on Mandriva, so no surprise there, this distribution suffers from a relatively unfriendly installer. It is okay, but not as good as the competition, which has made significant ergonomic changes in the recent years to accommodate less skilled users. Mandriva's installer still requires a fair bit of technical knowledge and comes with a few unexpected snags. To name a few, in the partitioning menu, Type refers to filesystem, Format lets you choose both type and format your partition, and once you approve of the formatting options, the installer launches suddenly.
It is broken into two pieces, with the user configurations done after the first restart, while the time, date, language, keyboard, and similar settings are all setup during the live session startup. In a way, it's a mix of old and new, with the more classic Linux elements intruding and clashing with the soft, polished, modern desktop usage. For most people, the installer is probably unattainable. It must be improved, if for the simple sake of visual consistency with the rest of the system.
The very first thing that might alarm you is if you boot from a USB drive, like I did, the device will be mounted and used, and this will cause your partition manager to hiccup an error. This happens everywhere, but with Mandriva, the message is particularly confusing and frightening. Not only does it tell you that it will proceed without using the said device, it offers to modify the partition table of a device in use! One hell of a way to cause supreme data corruption! And then, you are asked a tricky sort of double-negative question, do you agree to lose all the partitions? Hell, no!
What would an average user do at this point? Beats me. Finally, the closing bracket of the error message is placed on the row below, which looks plain ugly and is not logical, given the fact all of the lines above have margins further to the right. But this probably means the tool underneath the GUI grabbed the /dev/sdb string from somewhere and did not clean the newline character. A simple chomp in Perl would do. Naughty QA.
Then, you have the colors to choose your partitions. Normal mode, advanced mode, it's a bit confusing. The usual mantra about type and format buttons. By default, Mandriva recommends resizing an existing Windows partition for itself, which is exactly what Ubuntu does, too. Not the best choice, if you ask me. SUSE does it much better. But then, the installer does not check the /home directory for formatting, so that's a sane setting right there.
Next the slideshow begins. It tells us this is a European distro, probably to assuage the Americans, who treat Europe as a homogeneous country like entity. But then, there's emphasis on global, which is ok. Next, you get the Eiffel Tower in the center, which is ok again, since Mandriva is ultimately French, the lovely Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, unless it's Hagia Sophia, and the statue of Cristo Redentor on top of Corcovado in Brazil. So you get two religion symbols out of three. Now, atheists, agnostics and religious people of non-Christian denomination might be offended by this. Moreover, the statue icon is a bit confusing in the context of the European origin statement, but it's probably there to emphasize the global use idea.
Now, only a sick mind like my own would come to these conclusions, but it emphasizes the point of stringent QA, which is a must if you want to get a tiptop distribution. Anyhow, the installation took about 30 minutes from a USB drive, which is quite a bit.
The bootloader correctly identified the resident Windows 8 installation and added it to the menu, making a proper dual-boot configuration, as expected. Now, Mageia, only a few weeks ago, failed to do the same. Rather weird, if you ask me.
Using Mandriva; time flows, the charm fades
After the installation, things worked well for a while. But then, several hours after I started using Mandriva, problems began to crop up, piling up into a big, unholy heap. So perhaps I'm spoiling the end, but we might discuss the problems as we go through the post-install experience.
I have no complaints here. Overall, Mandriva packs a very decent collection, although it is also twice the size of a typical distribution image. You get Firefox 5, Thunderbird, GwenView, Okular, LibreOffice although it displays with OpenOffice icons in the panel, Kopete, Clementine, which we saw earlier, Shotwell, Konqueror, a handful of K programs, and then some. The repertoire is fairly balanced and useful.
One more thing that stands out is the choice of the browser search engine. I have seen all kinds of variations used, normally ranging between Google, Bing and Yahoo. But Ask is a first, definitely from what I can recall. In Mandriva's Firefox, this is the default.
Package management & updates, le broken
Mandriva offers updates after a few minutes of logging in. I decided to experiment with this feature, as it is critically important for sane and healthy computing. The first thing the updater will do is ask you to let it connect online to download the repo list.
But then, I was asked to choose one of the following needed packages. It seems like a list of kernels, although none of these match my running kernel. Moreover, if you click on the Info button on the right, you get no info.
This made me worried. First, what was happening underneath the hood. Second, the lack of available information. All in all, I was most likely going to have to make a choice that seems unneeded, because development packages (headers) and sources are normally required for compilation, and I was not doing any of that kind. And even if I were, I'd expect the correct versions to be chosen.
Moreover, notice the fact, the listed version is 3.0.4, whereas my kernel is 2.6.38. This looks like a beginning of a huge mess. And indeed, so it was. The next window that popped up virtually offered to remove all of my conflicting packages. Blimey.
Now this could be a rolling release upgrade, in which case this might be perfectly ok, but the overall combination of cryptic messages and the remove-all for unknown update prompt were too much for me. As far as I'm concerned, this is utterly broken.
3D effects, le broken
No good, I'm afraid. The problem is not just limited to the live session. Even after installing the system, your proprietary driver or equivalent will not be activated until you manually configure what is dubbed the Graphics 3D Server through the Control Panel. You then must reboot.
And the overall experience is a snail's pace crawl, with unresponsive windows and the mouse cursor, turning the system useless. For instance, it look me almost 10 minutes to grab the screenshot of the most basic transformation of the bottom panel turned dock. Once I disabled the effects, the system was back to a workable state.
The really strong point of the last year's release was the plug-and-play functionality. Mandriva 2010 worked superbly. And it was blazing fast. What more, it probably offered the fastest 3D experience on the old test rig. This year, it's the other way around.
While I totally praised the menu in the beginning, over time, the usage became a little tedious. I could not figure out how to drag and drop icons to and from the menu, or how to interact with the bottom panel. I wanted to change the order of some of the available launchers, add new ones, as well as customize the panel, but neither left clicking, right clicking, no dragging worked in any way. Tabbing through the menu became boring after a while. I must admit the idea is revolutionary and will probably amaze most of the people, but my efficiency was reduced compared to more classic implementations.
You do find the combined Unity and Gnome 3 elements aligned with the somewhat pseudo-netbook approach useful and charming most of the time, but your efficiency is blocked by the design. If the emphasis is on making the user work more easily, then there must be a way to allow the user to fully customize the interface. Take Windows 8 for example. It comes with Metro, which is useless on desktops, but you can still play with the tiles, vanish them if you want, or fall back to the more classic looks if you need. And even with the much dumbefied tablet interface, you retain enough comfort and freedom of choice not to get 100% agitated. Unfortunately, the super-sexy Mandriva menu is a revolution, but it delivers only half the satisfaction.
There are lots of tiny annoyances, too. For example, in the live session, the system will complain about No Media Found. Mageia people took this thing and copied it into their distro, while it serves no purpose whatsoever except to confuse and pollute the experience. QA, anyone?
System resources, stability
Even without the 3D card functioning properly, Mandriva 2011.0 tolled some half GB of RAM, which is plenty. Now, KDE is not supposed to be lean, and the actual RAM usage is not important as long as the system is fast and responsive, but comparing to the competition, the figure is high. On the bright side, suspend & resume worked.
Mandriva 2011.0 test was one hell of a first date. But as we got to know each other, as brief as the affair was, issues rose, many and great. Even in a single day of fiddling with the distribution, I countered some 29 problems, including some pretty big showstoppers. Now, no matter how great the system is, no matter how beautiful, with problems like a broken package management and a crippled 3D experience, the end result is disappointing.
It's as if Mandriva 2011.0 has two personalities - one slick, modern, smooth, polished, and beautiful, the other ugly, buggy, uncoordinated. Really weird. Now, it's exactly this type of small issues that separates champions from the rest. Personally, I found the lot of smaller bugs more annoying and troubling the lack of proper 3D acceleration, for example. If I were to power up this distro on a new machine with an Nvidia card, I have no doubt things would have worked out fine. But the rest of the issues would remain.
I must admit that this year's release is a big, big drop in quality from the previous edition, especially considering my extremely high expectations. From utterly good to just average is a huge drop. In the same breath, the Mandriva team exercised the most unique and intriguing visual transformation of the KDE desktop yet, so perhaps there's hope, if they can sort out all the little things. We'll see what gives next year. At the moment, Mandriva 2011.0, if you get the package manager to work, deserves something like six out of ten points. Dedoimedo out.